Liz Coutts is a highly regarded director with over 20 years' experience in governance roles across public and private enterprise.
She currently chairs Ports of Auckland, Oceania Healthcare, Skellerup Holdings and Ebos Group and is highly respected for her governance style, which she describes as "inclusive, calm and decisive".
The Deloitte Top 200 judges say these attributes have been demonstrated by Coutts in the way she has dealt with Covid-19 this year across a range of industries to achieve success, and, it is what distinguished her as 2020 Chairperson of the Year.
"Skellerup has had another year of strong performance, and Ebos Group's total shareholder return over the past decade exceeds 20 per cent per annum," says Deloitte Top 200 judge and independent director Cathy Quinn.
Coutts has been on the board of many of NZ's leading organisations, and her dedication to governance saw her appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016.
She enjoys being involved in industries that have a significant impact on the economy. "Each one of the companies I am involved in plays a key role — whether it be in a market or an industry," she says.
The judges say Coutts is someone who regularly moves from a director role to then chairing the audit and risk committee of an organisation, and then becomes chair. She has held many of her directorships for a long period of time — she joined the Skellerup board in 2002 and appointed chair in 2017, became director of Ebos Group in 2003 and chair in 2019, and joined the board of Ports of Auckland in 2010, becoming the first woman to chair the port in 2015.
Coutts says one of the things that keeps her interested in her roles are the people on the board and in management. "That's what keeps you there — you are interested in the people you're working with and you feel like you have a key role to play to make a difference," she says.
This year, Coutts says the biggest challenge with Covid-19 was dealing with the unexpected on such a global scale. "We all have risk registers that include pandemics, but to actually operationalise something and bring it into effect when it hasn't been done before on such a scale has been difficult because of the unpredictability," she says. "And now we are thinking about what next year is going to look like, how it will affect us, how and when the world's economy will open up and what will the future be like — we try to predict that but it is hard."
Each of the companies Coutts chairs have been affected differently.
Skellerup Holdings provided an early warning about Covid-19 because of its operations in China, Italy and elsewhere around the world.
"We have been at the forefront internationally with this global pandemic, learning what has been happening around the world from international staff," she says. "It has given us huge insight into what is happening globally."
The rubber goods manufacturer was able to mostly continue to operate throughout the worldwide lockdowns because of the critical nature of many of its products. The strength and resilience of its agri-business helped it to achieve net profit on par with last year's result.
Chairing Ports of Auckland is not an easy task and it requires strong and courageous leadership to advocate for it. This was made even more challenging this year when the worldwide surge in consumer demand resulting from the pandemic created challenges for all ports around the world.
Coutts says it has been very difficult to manage, but "regardless of that we just have to keep calm, keep focused and get through this." Despite it being a tough role, she says she relishes the challenge because of the incredibly important role the Ports of Auckland plays in New Zealand's economy.
Aged care provider Oceania Healthcare is another business that has required intense management over the pandemic in order to keep its operations functioning and its residents and staff safe.
"We worked hard with residents to make sure they still had a good experience and could communicate with their family and friends virtually," she says. "We put in a lot of extra support so we could do their shopping for them and keep up their communication."
Communication has been critical for all her companies this year — "People were working at home and they were working alone… it wasn't just physical support but emotional support that people needed."
When asked to name a highlight in her governance roles this year, Coutts says it is the way the companies she chairs have been able to continue with business as usual while operating in a totally different way.
"I have been so impressed with some of our leaders around the world with what they have achieved.
"It's quite amazing when you get something like this global pandemic how well everyone pulls together."
Finalist: John Loughlin
John Loughlin says he enjoys working with businesses that are trying to do things where he senses there is an aspiration for performance and a drive to do things that are special.
Loughlin has had a broad governance career with a focus on the primary sector, infrastructure and logistics.
He currently chairs Powerco, EastPack, Rockit Global, Hop Revolution, Coda Group, as well as the Meat Industry Association.
"I like an exciting challenge," he says, noting that can come in many different ways. "In some cases, it comes from early stage companies like Rockit and Hop Revolution, but also in the infrastructure area where there are significant challenges in companies that are very mature."
Judge Cathy Quinn says Loughlin is regarded as a wise head in the primary sector who has helped a variety of businesses deal with challenging circumstances and then prosper and is among the reasons he has been chosen as a finalist for Chairperson of the Year. "It's not an easy industry given that Mother Nature can play a huge influence in any year and that global markets, trade barriers and protectionism are matters largely beyond the control of any domestic player or NZ Inc.," she says.
All of Loughlin's companies were classified as essential businesses during the lockdown. He says trading through Covid meant massive uncertainty, new risks, and significantly increased degrees of difficulty.
"EastPack and Rockit had to pick fruit at alert level four while maintaining social distancing," he says. "We had to operate pack houses which have been designed for people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder — that was no longer possible and we had to find new ways to operate as well as navigate a supply chain to market where there was disruption at ports."
He says while the uncertainty was dramatic and the degree of difficulty was massively elevated, these kinds of challenges make life exciting and they provided some of the most satisfying outcomes for the year.
"At Rockit we packed and sold a crop that was 25 per cent bigger at a price that was one per cent higher than last year, and we did that with some channels to market being closed to us," he says. "We had to open new channels, we had to be fast on our feet, and we had to use digital advertising particularly effectively. To achieve our growth targets in a really difficult world was incredibly satisfying."
Finalist: Patrick Strange
Patrick Strange says a chair can only be as good as their board and management, and his nomination as a finalist for Chairperson of the Year is a reflection of the board and management of those companies he chairs.
Strange brings extensive experience in regulated infrastructure to his current chairperson appointments at Auckland International Airport and Chorus. He enjoys these roles because they are both important infrastructure companies for New Zealand.
"We have seen with Chorus the clear benefits of the fibre network during the Covid lockdown, and the airport is the driver of both our business and leisure travel," he says.
The Deloitte Top 200 judges say he is an inclusive chair that brings out the best in his fellow directors and management teams.
"Patrick is seen as a chair that has been effective in building relationships with Government for the organisations he chairs — he is seen as an honest straight shooter in government circles," says judge Cathy Quinn.
Strange says this year has been particularly busy, with both companies facing very different and significant challenges due to Covid-19.
"The airport had a huge loss of income which required the board and management to respond very quickly with cost changes but also with the raising of capital to address the balance sheet," he says.
The judges say the capital raise and the speed at which it was done at a very uncertain time has seen Auckland International Airport well positioned to manage through the uncertainty brought to the business from the impact of Covid-19.
Strange notes that the challenges faced by Chorus were different. While its income wasn't significantly impacted, the rollout of fibre had to stop during the lockdown and its contractors needed to be supported.
He says the highlight for him at Chorus has been the performance of the fibre network under huge load while so many New Zealanders had to work from home during the Covid-19 lockdown. "It was absolutely unconstrained and fault free, which is a great reflection of the build that has gone on," he says.
The judges noted that the Chorus share price has risen by 77 per cent in the past 12 months.
"This performance has been recognised with its win in the Most Improved Company category this year," says Quinn.